Judaism as Spiritual Ecology

Judaism as Spiritual Ecology February 19, 2020

The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.
–Thomas Berry

I’d like to briefly explore the intersection of Judaism and the emerging movement of spiritual ecology. I’m strongly convinced that Judaism has much in common with this newer way of looking at religion, spirituality, and ecology – so much so, that it might even be fair to say that Judaism can be fully understood as a form of spiritual ecology. This post will serve as an introduction, and I’m going to expand on these themes in the days ahead.

Spiritual Ecology

Spiritual ecology is an emerging movement rooted in nature and centered on the insights of interconnectedness, evolution, social justice, compassion, simplicity, and attunement to the world around us.

Spiritual Ecology emerges from the conviction that environmental renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness and an attitude of responsibility. Spiritual Ecologists concur that this includes both the recognition of creation as sacred and behaviors that honor that sacredness. The underlying notions here being that a secular approach to environmental issues might not be enough without the motivating power of spirituality and theological conviction.

In a worldview informed by evolutionary thinking, science, and evidential reasoning, spirituality comes to reference the arena of existential concern, ethics, and human meaning – themes of gratitude, awe, connectedness, love, compassion – and ecological sustainability.

Spiritual Ecology seeks to draw out the nature-based aspects within existing religious traditions so as to reconnect them with the earth, the agricultural cycles, the seasons – the rhythms of life and our planet.

Spiritual ecology means reawakening our awareness of what is sacred in all of creation, and knowing that only if we work together with the divine in all of its manifestations can we hope to redeem what we have desecrated and destroyed through our greed and arrogance. It means to reclaim the wisdom of our ancestors who knew the sacred interconnections of life and the divine forces within it.
– Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

As such, there can be many forms of spiritual ecology – Christian, Pagan, Muslim, Buddhist, and yes, even Jewish.

Judaism as Spiritual Ecology

How does spiritual ecology relate to Judaism?

Ecology as a discipline adopts much from the philosophy of systems theory, therefore, an ecosystem is conceived of as dynamically interacting system(s) of organisms, the communities they make up, including the non-living components of their environment. As with other forms of systems thinking, analysis would be made concerning system inputs and outputs, equilibrium, growth, death, and all the various cycles, processes, and changes inherent in any dynamic system.

As such, ecology can speak of the entire cosmos or our planet as a unified ecosystem, or analyze nested ecologies within the greater whole, such ocean ecology, the ecology of a given forest or meadow, and even human ecologies.

Human ecology theory is a way of looking at the interactions of humans with their environments and considering these relationships from the perspective of systems theory. In this theoretical framework, biological, social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of humans are considered within the broader context of their environments. These environments may be the natural world and/or the social and cultural milieu in which humans exists.

In human ecology, the person and the environment are viewed as being interconnected in an active process of mutual influence and change. Much of how people act within their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.

Let’s pause here and consider this – the above themes are found throughout Torah and the rest of Tanakh. The earth, which emerges from the creative-ordering source we call God, is an interconnected system for which Torah offers ageless wisdom for maintaining in harmony.

A Jewish spiritual ecology integrates ancient Jewish wisdom with new directions in modern thought such as ecological and systems thinking which emphasize networks of relationship, context and patterns of connection. This approach to Jewish texts focuses on these relationships, recovers their organic vibrancy, and opens them up so that we can see their relevance to modern lives. And this approach isn’t really new, since in many ways, Judaism has always been about maintaining human ecology, which cannot be separated from the larger ecosystem in which humans have their home.

In Jewish sacred texts, there are abundant agricultural, seasonal, and ecological insights and teachings. There are keen moral insights about maintaining harmony and justice among humans. There are rules put forward concerning how humans should treat other living things. Torah offers a worldview that aims to preserve the harmony of the world – in other words, broadly speaking, it’s filled with advice and insights on keeping the human ecosystem and the ecosystems that its nested within – in balance.

Gleaning, keeping land fallow, not destroying trees or crops during war, kindness to animals, commandments not to waste or pollute, as well as compassion for the needy, aid for the poor, justice for the oppressed, the sharing of resources – these, and many, many other pieces of Jewish wisdom assume the interconnectedness of all things, the place of humans in the broader ecosystem, and our responsibilities to one another and nature that preserve the balance of things toward wholeness.

Nature, in Judaism, is therefore a contextual-spiritual touchstone and our connection to it is vital for our wholeness and thriving. Humanity is inherently part of nature, we do not stand above or outside the ecosystem; we are fully ingrained within it, God calls us forth from the earth as we read in Genesis. We find God in the natural world and in our lives. Our wholeness depends on being in harmony with our own human nature, other humans, other living things, and the entire ecosystem.

In this sense, Judaism is a form of spiritual ecology and its teachings go beyond environmental awareness and preservation to include proven wisdom on maintaining harmony in human ecologies and between humans and the natural world.

Growing Trends in Judaism

I’m not alone in these insights. Groups like Wilderness Torah are exploring and bringing to the fore in Judaism themes of ecology, nature-based spirituality, and finding the divine in the natural world. The NeoHasid movement with the work of Rabbi Arthur Green and the work of Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org have laid intellectual foundations to build upon. Other groups such as Hazon and Aytzim are just some of the environmentally aware efforts motivated by Jewish spirituality. Aleph, a Jewish Renewal group, is now offering a certificate in earth-based Judaism.

Trends in eco-Kosher living, in Jews embracing sustainability, Temples and synagogues pushing to be carbon-neutral are all emerging initiatives driven by this same impulse.

In step with this trend, I’m pleased to announce that this spring, I’ll be launching an online Center for Spiritual Ecology which will focus on interfaith contributions and dialog, harnessing the collective power of many traditions to heal humanity and the world. The site will also feature a strong Jewish component and presence. Stay tuned!

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